I don’t think there is a single class of men in the world that have my respect more than bi-vocational pastors. Perhaps our soldiers fighting in combat overseas, but other than that I cannot think of a group whom I esteem more highly. They work incredibly hard. They carry the weight of great burdens with little to no rest. They sacrifice themselves selflessly to minister to the needs of people and advance the cause of Christ. Because of the size of their churches they often serve unnoticed by the brethren who operate larger ministries. They struggle to make ends meet both at home and at church. Their very lack of ministerial 'success' breeds in them a constant struggle with discouragement. Yet they just keep on going.
Such men are rarely bi-vocational out of choice. They do so out of necessity. Most of the time their church is too small to afford to pay a complete salary package. Sometimes the pastor inherits a financial mess and the only way to get the church past it intact is for him to throw all the money available at some debt or other. Other times the church is financially lazy, used to living off the sacrifice of such men, and in thus taking advantage of their pastor they ignore their scriptural responsibilities. It is here that I wish to begin.
I have zero patience with the position which states pastors should serve without pay. Scripture is repeatedly and emphatically clear upon the point. The plainest passage in the Word of God in this regard has to be I Corinthians 9.
7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?
8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?
9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?
10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.
11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?
12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.
13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?
14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
From this passage I pull several applications:
-The pastor should not have to run church ministries or bear church expenses out of his own pocket. At the very least, they should be promptly reimbursed. (v7)
-As the church grows numerically the pastor ought to reap the financial fruits of this growth. (v7)
-This was not just Paul's self-serving opinion. The principle was established in the Torah. (v8)
-It is normal that a pastor who gives his life to feed the flock spiritually should, in turn, find his physical/financial needs met by that flock. Indeed, the church should take as conscientious an approach to their responsibility in this as they expect the pastor to take in his sermon preparation, his counseling, his discipleship, and his spiritual oversight of their souls. …and I dearly think some of you reading this need to stop a moment and ponder the implications of that last sentence. (v11)
-In turn, the pastor must never forget his responsibility to be willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary financially in order to help the church. (v12)
-God's design does not include a pastor permanently being bi-vocational. He is
From these applications then I would offer the following practical suggestions:
1) The pastor should always be paid something. When I realized the financial mess my little church was in a few weeks after I became the pastor I cut my salary by 75% but I kept something. The principle of this was more helpful to the church in the long run than the extra $200 they could have applied to some current need.
2) The pastor should teach the people that he needs to be completely supported when the church is healthy enough to afford it. I will speak more to this later, but entirely too many pastors are loathe to frankly discuss their own pay package with their church. For the sake of the church, for the sake of his family, and for the sake of his own long term ministry the pastor must get beyond this. I have known more than a few men who greatly desired to become full time in the ministry but they shrank from telling their church. Consequently, the church got used to not paying the pastor much. As the church grew they found, as churches always will, some other good use for that money. When the church got big enough to support the pastor these men faced great resistance because they had not gradually and carefully laid the groundwork for their request to be paid.
3) The church should be ruthless about starting ministries that soak up money until the pastor's needs are amply provided. Perhaps ruthless is too strong of a word but it does get my point across. Ministries should not be started simply because there is a need. There is always a need. That need is always greater than what the church can afford. Ministries should be started, maintained, and extended because the church needs to do ministry in order to be like Jesus. The difference between those two approaches is that sometimes one need takes precedence over another. And what a young or small church needs most is a pastor.
When I accepted the pastorate of those eleven people in the summer of 1997 I inherited a church that supported eight missionaries at a cost of about five hundred dollars a month. The intentions behind such decisions were awesome. In practical terms, it was killing us. We could not pay our rent. The few remaining people were nervous. We were inches away from closing. I realized that while supporting missionaries was a good thing the best thing was a stable, healthy church. It was the best thing for our community while simultaneously being the best thing for our missionaries. I asked our church to rework its missions support. We did not cancel any of our eight missionaries. Instead we decided to stop subsidizing the insultingly low Faith Promise missions giving from the pitifully empty general fund. We decided instead to take whatever came in through Faith Promise, divide it up eight ways, and send it out.
As a young pastor with great dreams I found this singularly embarrassing. The first year we sent checks of two and three dollars a month to these dear people. But I wrote them all, explained the situation, and told them that the best thing I could do for them was to grow a healthy church. To a man, they wrote back with nothing but kind and understanding words. Over time, as our church got healthier, our missions giving grew accordingly. Before I left we had even grown past the initially disastrous starting point and added some additional missionaries. But I do not think it would have happened that way if we had not made the hard decision to dramatically decrease in the short term a wonderful and wonderfully expensive ministry.
4) The pastor should not permanently stay in a situation in which he is forced to remain bi-vocational. I think, of everything I have said in this post, this will produce the most disagreement but it is honestly what I both believe and feel. I believe it because the Scripture teaches it but I feel it because of life experience.
In my own case I can remember assembling the men of my little Pennsylvania church relatively early on and informing them that I would not stay there forever as a bi-vocational pastor. Let me hasten to add that this was NOT the reason I left but it would have been if things had not improved over time as they did.
I am not alone in my marriage in growing up in a poverty stricken preacher's home. My wife did as well. Her father was an assistant pastor when she was born and then started a church in the same area when she was just a little girl. It never got big enough to support their family and this forced her father to work a variety of side jobs constantly. Ministry drains a person, beloved. When there is not sufficient time or mental space for recuperation that drain eventually sucks the life out of a man. It breaks my heart to say it, but after years of this my wife's father walked away from his own pulpit and his own family all in the same day. Twenty five years later he has not been back to either. Certainly there were other contributing factors but only an idiot would insist that the strain of being bi-vocational for years without an end in sight played no part in this.
Additionally, having been bi-vocational for five years myself and now for thirteen years being full time in the ministry I know the difference between the two. By this I mean the difference in my own life and mind. It is so incredibly freeing, mentally, to have your ministry be your sole focus. My preaching immediately got better. My study, over time, got exponentially better. This in turn only continued the improvement in my preaching. I do not mean that arrogantly; I mean that I know I am a better preacher when I am free to be just the pastor. There is a direct correlation between the two. And since this is my main task (I Peter 5.2) it is a great blessing to the church itself when the pastor is free to just be the pastor.
5) A struggling church should be creative in supporting their pastor. If they do not have the sheer dollars with which to do so they should look for some other way to provide. Perhaps they could team up with another struggling church and together share a pastor. One could have a service Sunday morning and the other Sunday night. One could have a mid-week service on Wednesday and the other on Thursday. In pioneer days this worked for the Methodist circuit riders and I am not quite sure why we do not do much of it now. Perhaps the families in the church could take turns being responsible for hosting the pastor and his family for dinner three nights a week. This fellowship would grow the pastor-people relationship as well as decrease a grocery bill. If there is a mechanic in the church he might offer to work on the pastor's car at no charge. If there is a stylist in the church perhaps she might offer to care for her pastor's wife's hair. If there is an accountant in the church perhaps he might offer to do the taxes at no charge. Each person might give a little of what they are and do. In the long term a pastor ought to be able to afford to buy his own groceries and pay for his own car repairs but in the short to medium term this would be a blessing to both sides.
In conclusion, let me say that I do not believe that I alone have the only valid opinion in this area. I do believe my experience gives me an understanding of such a situation but I do not claim to be the only person worth hearing on the matter. If you are a bi-vocational pastor or a member of a church with a bi-vocational pastor I am perfectly glad to hear your own thoughts even if they disagree with mine.
And let me say again, for I cannot say it too forcefully or too often, such men have my greatest respect. Many an earthly story of Christ likeness displayed to us only in Heaven will involve the story of a dedicated, selfless, diligent, persevering, patient bi-vocational pastor and his sacrificial family. May God bless them. May He bless them richly.